IN the 85th minute, it felt like the end of the world — grown up men just staring into the distance, crushed by their emotions, betrayed by their expectations, devoured by their pain. Silenced by a freak goal, the first an opposition forward had scored in FIVE years at this fortress in either a World Cup/Nations Cup qualifier.
The brutality of its grim consequences displayed in the crying eyes of all those unfortunate witnesses.
The paralysis, the shock, the sadness, the emptiness, the grief, the pain, the questions, the horror, the humiliation, the embarrassment, a cloud of negativity now hovering over the stadium.
A minute earlier, we had been seeing our Warriors, or what had been left of them by some kamikaze decisions from hell, which had reduced them into this staggering unit, well short of some of its best players.
Now, all that we were seeing were moving shadows, effigies of shame, ghosts of failure, the flops who lost to Somalia, and in the process, dragged all of us down the abyss of ridicule.
Where we had been seeing the green grass of home, now all that was on view was the grey minefield of shattered dreams and broken hearts, a boulevard of hate and fury, a dark cathedral of sorrow.
For the first time, since June 1, 2014, when Thomas Ulimwengu scored in the 46th minute for Tanzania, we had not seen a visiting player score a goal at the National Sports Stadium in either a World Cup/AFCON qualifier.
After five years of protection from our fortress, in which we had played 579 minutes of football in the two main competitions and prevented the visitors from scoring, someone had finally breached our defence.
The way that goal came, a product of a combination of misfortune on our part and fortune on their part, had produced toxic emotions that were ravaging the soul.
Somehow, an intended clearance had ricocheted off our centre-back, creating an avenue of opportunities for the Somali forward to take some strides and coolly lift the ball past our goalkeeper.
Just five minutes of regulation time left, the ultimate sucker punch, and like zombies, we surveyed the wreckage of our World Cup dreams, the pain amplified by how we had conceded the goal, the horror magnified by the opposition that had staged this spectacular smash-and-grab mission.
Some fans started trooping out, unable to bear witness to the reading of the last rites, too emotional to see our coffin being lowered into the ground by these Ocean Stars, of all teams in the world.
One of them came to me and said he believed our two central defenders had conspired to provide the chance for the Somali striker to score what appeared then to be a golden goal.
In a country where the usual password to unlock an analysis of a failed football mission is to point out that someone had fixed the match, that furious fan pointed his guns at Alec Mudimu and Teenage Hadebe.
I felt for them, because of what had just happened, and the torture they were set to be subjected to by a raging mob that sees conspiracy theories everywhere, and a football community that always looks for a fall guy.
Across the passage I saw Felton Kamambo, his face badly battered by what had just happened, his soul tortured, his mind troubled by what had just happened, the storm of criticism that was on its way, and he appeared to have aged.
Next to him, I could see Philemon Machana, usually the one who doesn’t betray emotions, also looking into the distance, the emptiness around him, his face saying it best when he was saying nothing at all.
The enormity of what had just happened had hit us hard, very hard, and we were all searching for answers where only questions existed, looking for comfort where only pain lived, searching for an island of relief in a raging ocean of torment.
So much happened in that 85th minute at the National Sports Stadium on Tuesday — all of it was bad, very bad, a national game on its deathbed, a domestic football constituency watching the final moments of its dying favourite horse.
THIS WAS THE END, NO TWO WAYS ABOUT IT, AND IT HURT BADLY
So much also raced through my mind, including writing a resignation letter to my boss, to finally bring the curtain down on this journalism career.
Surely, I told myself, what was the use of hanging on to this job if the main sporting discipline we cover had become this bad, this horrible and this lifeless?
What was the point of keeping on writing about the dead and the dying, about a carcass no one really cared for anymore, let alone respected, about a sport that now only lived in the newspapers and had long died on the field?
What was the point in all this — where in a decade between 2013 and 2023 — all that we would have covered was just one World Cup qualifier in which we would have lost to Somalia, of all teams?
What was the point in hanging on, when in 10 years, all that we would write about was just one World Cup qualifier in which we had suffered the ultimate humiliation of losing to the globe’s weakest football nation?
What was the point in soldiering on, when in a decade, all that we could cover was just one World Cup home qualifier, against Somalia of all teams, which had ended in an embarrassing defeat for us?
What was the point of writing about Marvelous Nakamba and his Aston Villa adventure when the Warriors were this lifeless, this hopeless, this useless, this helpless, this spiritless, this reckless?
What was the point in writing about Khama Billiat and his brilliance at Kaizer Chiefs when the Warriors had been reduced into such a farce without a face, a team now forced to watch from a distance as the likes of Somalia battled in the World Cup qualifying groups?
What was the point in writing about Teenage Hadebe’s heroics in Turkey when his last World Cup appearance for his country had ended in such shame, with him committing that grave mistake, leaving us in a web of paralysis?
What was the point in even writing a weekly football column in this country when the Young Warriors, the so-called future of the team, had just been hammered 5-0 on aggregate by South Africa in the AFCON Under-23 qualifier?
And what was the point about calling yourself a sports journalist in a country where its main sporting discipline was now buried in a grave, having been choked to death by Somalia, of all teams, including failing to beat these Ocean Stars in our backyard?
There is a time to come and a time to go and, in that 85th minute, I told myself that my time to go appeared to have come — the end of a journey that started in November 1992 when I arrived at this newspaper as the latest recruit to its Sports Desk.
Just do it buddie, a little voice kept telling me, get to the office, do one more final assignment, cover these Warriors’ funeral for the next day’s paper and do the honourable thing, write your resignation letter and thank your bosses for everything.
Tommy Sithole, the new Zimpapers chairman, for taking a chance on me when he employed me 27 years ago when I was just a greenhorn straight from journalism school.
Pikirayi Deketeke, the Zimpapers chief executive, for all his guidance and support from his time when he was my Editor at this newspaper through some of my darkest moments.
All the Editors I have worked under — Sithole, Deketeke, Charles Chikerema, Bornwell Chakaodza, Ray Mungoshi, Cephas Chitsaka, probably the coolest man in this world, Innocent Gore, Caesar Zvayi and Tich Zindoga — for their support.
Jahoor Omar, the finest Zimbabwean sports journalist ever, for taking a chance on me and providing me with a foundation on which I have built my long career.
The late Sam Marisa, for having been a good big brother, the late Philip Magwaza, for everything we did together, the late Lovemore Musharavati, for all the jokes we shared and the fun we had.
And, of course, Collin Matiza, for being a true brother and workmate for 27 years, the fine brother my parents never gave me.
Pablo, also known as Petros Kausiyo, for all that we shared, Lawrence Moyo, for being a damn good fellow, even though he supports Liverpool, Grace Chingoma for being the good sister and everyone else who was part of the adventure.
The end of the road, possibly a return home to Chakari to run my little gold mine full-time, teach at the secondary school where I spent four of my six high school years or even preach at the local Baptist church.
Some might ask why?
Well, when you have spent this long in this game like me, you become a part of it, and when the Warriors win, I get people congratulating me as if I was part of them, and when they lose, I also get some folks blaming me as if I played a part in their defeat.
FOR OUR FOOTBALL LEADERS, THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN IT, DONE AND DUSTED
I also expected our entire football leaders, from the ZIFA councillors to the board, to also do the same, throw in the towel, accept responsibility for this embarrassment, and let others come in and start the house-cleaning exercise.
There would be no point in them hanging on, blaming a third, fourth, fifth or sixth force, everyone else except themselves, holding on to their positions when this disaster had happened under their watch, their supervision.
What would they still be chasing — qualifying for the next AFCON finals?
Something that we have done four times before, something that Vincent Pamire and Rafik Khan did in 2004, something Wellington Nyatanga did in 2006, something Philip Chiyangwa did in 2017, something which the Harare property mogul again did in 2019?
Of course, they were in charge when the marathon was finally completed, with that home win over Congo-Brazzaville, but the real work had been done before, with that victory in Kinshasa, that draw in Brazzaville and that demolition of Liberia.
Trying to win the COSAFA Cup?
With the Under-23s out of the Olympic qualifiers, the Under-20s and Under-17s unable to play at the COSAFA Cup and the Mighty Warriors in turmoil, surely, what would they still be administering?
Where would they still be deriving their mandate from, to call themselves domestic football leaders when the game had collapsed to such an extent the Warriors’ World Cup quest had just lasted 180 minutes?
Ended by homeless Somalia, of all countries, of all teams?
For them, just like for me, this should have been the end, an inglorious closing chapter to the adventure, a painful ending to the mission, a premature ending to the show, the courage to concede where one had failed and the wisdom to give others a chance.
Buried by their decision to underrate Somalia and use it as was the case in the first leg, as a pawn to hit back at the regular players they blamed for allegedly causing the chaos that stalked the Warriors’ AFCON finals camp by sidelining them from the match in Djibouti.
Destroyed by their emotional decision to interfere in the affairs of the coach by prescribing to him the players he should not call, even when those footballers were the very best the country had, and sadly, had not been charged of any offences by the same administration.
Blown away by their queer decision to try and suggest these Warriors could still compete without Knowledge Musona, something Cuthbert Dube tried to do a few years ago before it all backfired on him as the Smiling Assassin, once again, showed that when it comes to this team, he provides the X-Factor.
I would also have expected the coach, Joey Antipas, whose appointment is until the end of the year, to also throw in the towel because, while the team’s poor preparations made this a tough job for him, the mere fact he allowed himself to be abused by those who dictated to him the players he should not call, meant he would have been an accomplice to the tragedy.
Critically, his failure to change his tactics, to leave just three defenders at the back on Tuesday, instead of five, once it became clear the Ocean Stars were just here to sit back, and leave just one man upfront and push those defenders to reinforce the attack, exposed some limitations about him at this level.
The 85th minute on Tuesday, that’s how close it came to disaster, the end of the road, until of course, the “Double K” attack — Knox (Mutizwa) and Khama (Billiat) — came to the rescue.
Just five minutes, no wonder why I love this game, and this job, you never know what the next minute carries.
To God Be The Glory!
Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton and all the Chakariboys in the struggle.
Come on United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole Ole!
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